A Flushing, Queens, branch of a restaurant with around 20 locations in Beijing is here to deliver New York from its duck difficulties.
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By Pete Wells
New York’s Peking duck enthusiasts have had reason to be on edge lately. In the fall, a kitchen fire knocked down Decoy, the small, sunken rathskeller below RedFarm in the West Village that once served what many people considered the finest version of the dish in the city. The restaurant is expected to survive, but it probably won’t reopen until this summer.
The fire followed the Covid closings, when Peking duck — almost the definition of a restaurant dish — was impossible to find. And the pandemic came right after the failure and bankruptcy of the Midtown beachhead of DaDong, a Beijing-based chain that couldn’t seem to replicate the formula that makes its lean, golden birds so widely respected in China.
But there is good news at last. Juqi, in Flushing, Queens, is the first United States edition of a restaurant with about 20 locations in Beijing, all of which specialize in the cuisine of that city. And while it is nice to have a new place to eat zha jiang mian and jiaozi, not to mention cumin lamb and crab-flavored fish, the most impressive item on the menu is the Peking duck. I don’t know another restaurant in the city that clears the classic Peking duck hurdles — all the fine points of roasting, carving and serving — so consistently and satisfyingly.
Juqi is inside the hotel and condominium complex called Tangram, in a skylit mall with two levels. Upstairs is a beer hall; a sprawling branch of a hot-pot restaurant from Chengdu; a branch of the Thai restaurant Zaab Zaab from Elmhurst, Queens; stalls for banh mi and Hong Kong-style egg tarts and matcha soft serve; and a vending machine that sells toy robots.
Juqi is on the lower level, along with an Orangetheory Fitness center, an indoor playground, a branch of Xi’an Famous Foods and an H Mart that is still under construction. Alongside the entrance to Juqi is a sculpture of a sofa occupied by what appears to be a giant rabbit.
Like other new restaurants nearby that cater to the same young Chinese students and professionals who might buy a condominium in downtown Flushing, Juqi uses something like theme-park architecture to evoke a traditional China that is rapidly disappearing. In the case of Juqi, the scenes being recreated are Beijing’s hutongs, neighborhoods of alleys and courtyards where something of the city’s old culture survives. This means that in addition to the expected hanging lanterns and carved wooden screens, a partial brick wall runs through the main dining room, its nooks inhabited by life-size replicas of pigeons.
The restaurant is also populated with figurines of Tu’er Ye, a rabbit-headed minor deity. (That was Tu’er Ye on the couch.) Tu’er Ye’s cult is said to be unique to Beijing, where he is worshiped during the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival. Juqi has contributed a tradition of its own to the cult, an edible Tu’er Ye made of cold mashed potatoes that stands several inches tall, its pointed ears and other features precisely drawn with colored cake-decorating gel. It is filled with bacon and sweet peas, is surrounded by a creamy roasted-sesame mayonnaise, and tastes almost exactly like German potato salad.
Mr. Rabbit Mashed Potato, as the dish is known, is not the only visual allusion to the culture of China’s capital. Juqi’s mock pig-intestine sashimi, devised in homage to a joke by a Beijing comedian, seems not to have made the trip to Queens, for better or worse. But black drums of fried rice, served in a two-foot-high column of flame, recall the honeycomb charcoal briquettes that older Beijingers remember as the main source of household heat. Wandou huang, lightly sweet cakes of yellow split-pea flour, are molded into minutely detailed mahjong tiles.
Both are pleasant enough, but easily my favorite optical illusion at Juqi is the sweet and juicy shrimp balls that are rolled in puffed grains of red yeast rice so they look like lychees.
Chuanming Zhu, the chef, gives fine renditions of delicate dishes that originated in the imperial court. Zhua chao yu pian, or sweet fried fish fillets, are coated in a sauce the color and consistency of maple syrup; garlic helps keep the sweetness from becoming cloying. Crab-flavored fish, created more than a century ago to satisfy the dowager empress’s craving for crab when there wasn’t any around, is a minimalist marvel — tender egg whites and yolks, cooked separately, with ribbons of sole. It is entirely crab-free except for the crab-shaped clay pot it’s served in.
More rugged Northern Chinese dishes appear, too, like the aromatic cumin lamb sizzling on a ridged iron plate that draws off the melted fat that sometimes makes the dish too rich. Beef brisket is cooked to tenderness with fried potato chunks in a wintry stew flavored with star anise and cinnamon; dry-fried beef is cooked with threads of dried chiles and green clusters of fresh Sichuan peppercorns, which taste more lemony than the dried berries.
If you’re interested in kung pao chicken, you should know that it is made with more sugar than a Sichuan chef would use, reflecting the Beijing sweet tooth.
There are also good versions of Beijing street foods like the sturdy jiaozi dumplings stuffed with pork, shrimp and Chinese leeks, with the standard dipping sauce of soy and garlic vinegar; or zha jiang mian, wheat noodles dressed at the table in a savory minced-pork-and-pine-nut sauce and tossed with fresh vegetables.
But just about anything you eat at Juqi will probably turn out to be a side dish once the Peking duck arrives. A squad of waiters wearing Bluetooth earpieces will put down their iPad menus and converge on your table, briskly rearranging plates and bowls to create a smooth runway where the duck can land. Meanwhile, a chef with a long, sharp blade will disassemble the bird — slice, slash, stroke — as fluidly as a magician shuffling cards.
You can see right away that this duck has been roasted by the book. No gooey white fat has gone unrendered; it has all been transformed into a thin sheet of solid amber. As for the skin, it’s so taut you could carve your initials on it.
The first rectangles of skin will be topped with caviar and set on chips of dry toast. My advice: Leave the toast, take the caviar.
Other slices of duck will be splayed out on platters. It’s fun to dip a corner of skin in sugar. The meat can use the help of Juqi’s soybean sauce, saltier and less sweet than hoisin. Or you can wrap both in a tissue-thin pancake with slivers of green onions and sticks of cucumber or, better yet, honeydew melon.
Eventually, you will be interrupted by the remains of the duck, either made into soup or fried into a bony, salty heap. You can try to pry the meat from dark notched fragments of bone, rewarding yourself every so often with another sugary square of skin.
A lot of time can be spent like this before anyone thinks of dessert. The mahjong split-pea paste is worth trying at least once in your life, but I think the most refreshing path, especially if you’re remotely serious about taking on the fried bones, is a simple dish of fresh watermelon juice made into a fragile jelly. It is part liquid, barely set, and if you don’t have a steady hand, it will slip right off your spoon.
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Pete Wells has served as restaurant critic since 2012. He joined The Times as dining editor in 2006. @pete_wells
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